Here is the secret to visiting Ireland: go West, young traveler. While Dublin is the almost unavoidable gateway to the country (a role it’s been playing since the Vikings first set up camp on the River Liffey), it’s only when you’re safely past Heuston Station that you begin to feel you might indeed be in a very different land.
What makes Dublin interesting is this role of intersection and overlap, the flowing and ebbing of cultural influence from the east. From Dublin Castle, the seat of English power until Irish independence, to the curious fact that the two major cathedrals in the city are Protestant rather than Catholic, the legacy of hundreds of years of colonial rule is met with on almost every corner.
As you wend your way West, a more singular identity emerges. Rather than the Anglo-Irish hybrid of the eastern coast, southwest Ireland feels distinctly…well, Irish. Cork is as compact and charming a city center as anything you’ll find in a Lonely Planet, and just down the road lies the harbor of Cobh/Queenstown, point of embarkation for millions of Irish emigrants.
But it’s only when you arrive in Galway that you know you’re in a truly unique place. A medieval port city with stronger historic trade links to Spain and France than with the rest of the British Isles (and even an unexpected Christopher Columbus connection), it’s in Galway that you can finally and shamelessly succumb to every wonderful Irish tourist board stereotype: a pint of Guinness by a turf fire in a warm pub, taking the ferry across the Sound to the ancient stones of the Aran Islands, and strolling the high street, umbrella in hand, along with hundreds of other happy locals and soggy visitors. And even, now and then, overhearing the ‘murmur of Gaelic’ in the largest remaining Irish-speaking area in the country.
So, in short: yes, take in the view of Dublin from the top of the Guinness Storehouse. Wait in line to see the Book of Kells. Have a six-euro pint in Temple Bar. But then grab the next Luas to the station and take the train, any train, to see a wonderful land of might-have-been.